‘True Detective,’ Season 2, Episode 4: ‘Down Will Come’HBO
And in the fourth episode, Pizzolatto said, “Let there be a raid.” For the second straight season, True Detective has rounded into its backstretch with a deadly action set piece. Last season, via the curious, roving, unblinking camera of director Cary Fukunaga, we saw Rust Cohle’s Crash alter ego rob a drug house in the projects with a few of his closest Iron Crusaders pals. Trying to recapture the magic of the most exhilarating six minutes of the series with another raid, at the same point in the season, was always going to put a lot of scrutiny on “Down Will Come.”
In the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which chronicles the making of Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppola explains why he ended his Vietnam epic with a surreal, one-on-one confrontation between Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen rather than the originally planned explosive battle scene. He knew he wouldn’t be able to top the Kilgore “Flight of the Valkyries” attack. Who could? Better to let the Doors play and get weird.
I’m not comparing Fukunaga’s “Who Goes There” work to Coppola’s death-from-above routine, but Coppola’s reasoning is germane here. Because of its anthology structure, and because these characters and this story are unconnected to the previous season, Pizzolatto and his creative team didn’t need to run back something just because it worked the first time. In a season that has gone out of its way to strike out on its own — abandoning the occult elements of the first season’s narrative, spreading the wealth among four main characters rather than turning up the star wattage on just two — this seemed like a strange bit of True Detective karaoke.
Part of what made the first season’s raid — and the first season in general — so intoxicating was how organic and surprising it felt. It wandered here and there, finding shocks in every room, over every fence, around every corner. The crescendo of “Who Goes There” came as Rust was wiping away whatever straight-life progress he had made, going back to the meth, leather, and danger of his old undercover underworld. He was losing himself, and that shootout finished the job. What was supposed to be a robbery spun out into a disaster,1 and it sprang from the turmoil that one of its main characters was experiencing.
Now, you could say the same thing about last night’s “Down Will Come.” Our cops arrived at the midway point of this season finding themselves in similar situations. All of them were trapped: Ani by the politics and double standards of the sheriff’s department, Paul by his sexuality and past, and Ray by the realization that Frank might just be right — his worst self might be his best self. No amount of babies, carved wooden icons, and whatever the hell was in Velcoro’s Hangover Helper Glove Compartment was going to set them free.
In that sense, what happened at the end of the episode added up. They’d been ambushed long before they got to that warehouse. And the way the trio dealt with all this violence was consistent with their characters’ journeys. Ani saw what was left of her career go up in gun smoke and went for her security — her knife; Ray was left with the trauma of being a survivor, despite having just praised Paul for having that very same quality; and Paul looked like he was at peace. For him, combat is a cakewalk.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with this shootout scene as a piece of filmmaking. From the setting to the way the gun battle plays out between overmatched cops and the crooks they’re pursuing, it owes more to Michael Mann’s bank robbery shootout in Heat than Fukunaga’s house party from hell. If you were looking for any signs of the occult in this season, Frank may have clued you in with a passing reference to Ledo Amarilla’s possible “Santa Muerte affiliation.” Whatever Amarilla believed in — he certainly seemed willing to die over it — proper bus safety was not one of them. And this wasn’t just a massacre, it was bad police work. Where Rust was able to save some lives and ultimately achieve his objective in last year’s raid, this season’s shootout ended in tragedy. Regardless of whether it was the result of the late Detective Dixon setting up his fellow officers2 or Ani going in without proper backup, this thing blew up in our heroes’ faces.
While we’re here, what is this “thing”? A majority of “Down Will Come” was composed of Ray and Ani trying to piece together a massive California criminal conspiracy spanning from New Age retreats in the north to sweatshops in the south. One of the core ideas that Pizzolatto has ported over from the first season is that of evil being passed down, like an inheritance of sin, through generations, through institutions (especially religion), and through families. It’s a major theme in this show, as it is in the social-history-as-crime-fiction of David Peace and James Ellroy. Vinci, like Carcosa, is a kind of hell. And the Chessanis have been its stewards for a long time, with people like Ben Caspere, Dr. Pitlor, Frank Semyon, and possibly even Ani’s father facilitating their reign and profiting from it.
That kind of thematic repetition is compelling. Evil has spread through Southern California’s freeways the same way it seemed to swim through Louisiana’s bayous and rivers. It’s been fascinating to see the same kind of characters pop up — drug-crazed criminal patsies, paternal religious figures, crooked politicians — and see how they differ and how they are the same. It’s when we get to the execution of the stories that the similarities start to grate.
In the show’s first season, minor characters seemed to have a small idea of the larger story — think Charlie Lange. But the audience was as in the dark as the two protagonists. This season, as the show sorts through more characters and a larger narrative, the conspiracy is starting to come into focus. Only our detectives can’t see it yet. Practically everyone — the Vinci police brass, Detective Dixon, Chessani, his family, Dr. Pitlor, Osip the Russian gangster, set photographers, even Ani’s sister — seem to be staring at them and making faces that scream, “Don’t you see the criminal conspiracy unfolding here?!” No wonder Ani brought a knife to a gunfight.
Would you watch a show called Not So Great Detective? Well, if you’re reading this, you are. Thing is, I don’t know if Pizzolatto thinks these people are bad at their jobs. He certainly doesn’t think they’re stupid. Just watch any of those car scenes between Ani and Ray, or Ray and Paul. Pizzolatto did something brave by making his protagonists a bunch of failures. His mistake was making them try to sing from last season’s hymnbook. Which is a shame. Failure is interesting, because these characters are interesting enough failures not to repeat last year’s tricks.
The second season of this show has its own rhythm. You can feel it, strummed out by the singer (played by Lera Lynn), in that purgatory bar where Frank and Ray like to compare notes on who’s apoplectic and who’s strident. It’s a lonely, sad beat that is always threatening to vanish into the smoky barroom air.
I like that song. Mind you, I never need to hear that Lera Lynn tune again, but I like the weird, theatrical, melancholy way that this season had been unfolding. I like how Vince Vaughn and Kelly Reilly are in a totally different show from everyone else. I like that Vaughn’s Semyon seems particularly peeved about the quality of landscaping going on at his house. The intersection between the evil that men do, the evil that cities hold, and the evil that drives someone like Amarilla is fascinating, if bleak. I like the way Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro has settled into a kind of screwed-up confidant and mentor to Ani and Paul rather than just being a burnout living in a glass case of emotion. These are new characters, with their own music. They don’t need last season’s anthems.
That’s why the shootout felt like blanks to me. Did this whole thing need a shot in the arm? Maybe. I just don’t know if it has earned thousands of them.